I love author Alexandre Dumas and his books. I read many of his great novels in high school and thrilled to the adventure, the romance, and the sword fights. Especially the sword fights. I just love a limber wrist and flashing steel. I read some of Alexandre’s books so many times that to this day (lo, these many years later) I can still tell you exactly where they were shelved in my school library (back right hand alcove, right side of shelf, second shelf from top). I loved every film version of every book that I saw. My favorites were just about every movie version of The Three Musketeers ever made. I loved Doug Fairbanks bouncing around a sound stage, the Ritz Brothers tripping over their own boots, Gene Kelly romancing Lana Turner, Charlton Heston scheming as Cardinal Richelieu, Kiefer Sutherland looking gorgeous as Athos, and Milla Jovovich doing a steam punk Milady. Not to mention Maureen O’Hara playing a Musketeer descendant and Howard Charles playing a mixed race Porthos very much based on Alexandre Dumas, himself, and his famous father. Even cartoon favorites Tom and Jerry, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy, and Barbie have swashbuckled their way across the silver screen. And there are still more versions of The Three Musketeers that I have yet to see.
John Wayne’s 1933 film serial, The Three Musketeers, was one version I had never before seen until just recently. Of course, I knew who John Wayne was. For more than 30 years, John was a box office champ and the epitome of rugged American masculinity for many of his legion of fans. He starred in all kinds of movie genres, playing Western cowboys, world weary adventurers, war weary soldiers, modern police detectives, and even a Mongol conqueror. My parents loved “The Duke”, as John was called, and I saw many of his more popular Westerns as I was growing up. I enjoyed him as a straight talking, straight shooting, rough and tough cowboy hero. I was too young at the time to have even the slightest inkling of John’s often controversial politics and especially his racist viewpoints. It is sometimes hard to watch some of my one-time favorite old John Wayne movies knowing what I know now about him. It is hard to still see him as an “American” hero when he so despised so many Americans.
The film serial The Three Musketeers premiered in 1933, long before John Wayne became an American icon, if even a polarizing one. In 1933, he was just a young, handsome actor doing a lot of B Westerns for “Poverty Row” studios (about 80 of those low budget horse operas in John’s own estimation). The Three Musketeers serial is an updated version of Alexandre Dumas’ classic story. Set in the then-contemporary North Africa (but bearing no relationship at all to the real life area, culture, or people), the Musketeers Athos, Aramis, and Porthos become the French Foreign Legion soldiers Clancy, Renard, and Schmidt. John Wayne plays American pilot Tom Wayne who comes to the trio’s rescue when they are surrounded and outnumbered by evil generic “Arabs”. The Legion is trying to track down gunrunners and prevent an uprising led by a mysterious masked villain. Unwitting Tom gets drawn into the plot when his fiance’s brother (an unwilling dupe to the secretive criminals) is murdered and Tom is framed. The three Legionnaires determine to help their rescuer uncover the real villain.
The Three Musketeers, like many other serials, is filled with fast paced adventure and improbable cliff-hangers. There are gun fights and fist fights, multiple air plane crashes, chases on foot and on horseback. Characters get tied up, shot, stabbed, and dangled from cliffs. Certain death at the end of one episode is quickly and positively resolved in the first few seconds of the next episode. John Wayne is the perfect handsome young hero. He shows off his cowboy skills with horses and his skills with his fists while riding, flying, and running from one confrontation to the next with the bad guys. His three friends are eager to join the fight. Schmidt is always eating, Clancy is Irish, and Renard is short but otherwise they are mostly interchangeable. John’s fiance Elaine is rather fickle. One minute she loves him, the next minute she’s leading Arab tribesmen to get revenge, then she loves him again. Unlike in most serials, the villainous mastermind’s face is shown early on but there is still a confusing mystery about exactly who he is. Movie fans will be glad to see to future stars in small roles. A very young Noah Beery, Jr. (perhaps best known as James Garner’s father in The Rockford Files) has a very tiny role as John Wayne’s doomed mechanic Stubbs. And Lon Chaney, Jr. (later an icon of Universal Horror films) plays the doomed Armand, brother to Elaine, friend to Wayne, and dupe to El Shaitan. I swear Lon is the master of the morose “I’m miserable and I just wanna die” characters.
There is lots of thrilling adventure in The Three Musketeers but the danger and violence is often cartoony and improbable and nothing to stress tender hearted movie fans. Some fans, however, may be upset by the very cardboard stereotyped “Arabs”. A bunch of American-speaking white guys are stuffed into turbans and cape-like robes, handed rifles, and called “Arabs” but there is no attempt at all to portray anything of the real-life people of North Africa where the story is supposedly set. The studio just wanted some “exotic” looking bad guys. Even the “Musketeers” themselves are simple stereotypes. Schmidt is a big guy who constantly eats and that makes him “German”. Clancy has an “Irish” accent and Renard has a “French” accent and John Wayne sounds like he always does and that’s the extent of the characterizations.
The Three Musketeers is in black and white. It has twelve chapters most of which run 15 to 17 minutes although the first chapter is a longer 27 minutes. These short episodes help keep the serial’s pace fast and exciting. In 1946, the 210 minutes of the original serial was edited down into the one hour and twelve minute long movie Desert Command. Both the serial version and the feature movie version are in the Public Domain and available to download or view online FREE at the Internet Archive. IA has the serial in individual chapters or all-in-one. The serial’s video quality is pale and very fuzzy and blurry. But the audio quality is a real problem. The all-in-one version’s audio is OK (this is all twelve chapters in one place on IA) but in the individual chapters (each chapter is separate on IA) the audio is out of sync with the video. Chapter One is in sync but for the other eleven chapters the audio ranges from a little out of sync to very out of sync. There are also occasional hesitations and skips in the sound. Fortunately Desert Command, the edited-into-a-feature-film version, is in good shape. The video is sharp and crisp if a bit dark in places and the audio is nice and clear and, more importantly, completely in sync.
The Three Musketeers is best watched as Desert Command. The feature film version is short, only one hour and twelve minutes, and the audio and video is much, much better than the serial versions. Plus the story is pared down while still retaining the adventure. If you want the serial experience, the all-in-one version at IA is best. This version, The Three Musketeers (12 episodes) has all twelve chapters together in one place for easy viewing. The video is fuzzy and blurry and pale but the audio is good and in sync. IA also has all twelve chapters separately but, except for the first episode, the audio is badly out of sync. Still, here they are,if you want to give them a try:
Chapter 1: The Fiery Circle
Chapter 2: One for All and All for One
Chapter 3: The Master Spy
Chapter 4: Pirates of the Desert
Chapter 5: Rebels’ Rifles
Chapter 6: Death’s Marathon
Chapter 7: Naked Steel
Chapter 8: The Master Strikes
Chapter 9: The Fatal Cave
Chapter 10: Trapped
Chapter 11: The Measure of a Man
Chapter 12: The Glory of Comrades
For more film serial goodness, please check out my posts on Captain Marvel, Captain America, and The Phantom. If you want to enjoy a radio serial, please go to my post on Chandu the Magician. To read a serial in book form, try The Perils of Pauline. Coming soon will be posts on the film serials of Chandu and Pauline.